Bullying; The Hidden Harrassment of Foster Children

Bullying was a hot topic in 2014. Cyber bullying was profiled after several teenagers took their lives because they felt they could no longer handle the stress of being harassed by classmates. Many school districts are looking at ways to handle bullying which has become a significant problem in schools. What is probably not well known is the level of bullying that is endured by foster children, who their tormentors are and the effect on these kids.

Survey on Bullying of Foster Children

A recent survey asked former foster children if they had been harassed in school. Some of the responses were:

“I was. A lot of the boys physically hurt me, and girls would be really mean.”

“Yes, I was bullied by one girl in high school who was my friend. When I told her I was in foster care, everything changed. She would say things like ‘at least my parents love me’ and ‘at least I have a family.’ I had heaps of kids in primary school do the same. Their favorite line was ‘at least my parents love me’.”

“When girls in middle school found out, they were brutal. Needless to say it made life a lot harder.”

“I was treated differently by teachers and bullied by the popular girls in town. I would skip school just to not have to put up with it every day.”

“I remember once birthday invitations were handed out to every girl in class but me. ‘Her foster mother won’t let her go to anyone’s house anyway,’ the girl announced to the class.”

These responses are typical. Classmates are a huge challenge for many foster kids because fellow students can be verbally and physically abusive.  Other comments told about the parents of fellow students making derogatory remarks or going out of their way to remind the foster child that they were different or delinquent.

Some foster children wrote about having to fight back and getting into trouble for defending themselves while a few wrote how they started to become a bully themselves. Others talked about having run away and living on the street or overdosing on pills and ending up in ICU, all to get away from the physical and emotional pain they experienced at school.

Educators: Instigators of Harassment

Teachers can be responsible for letting classmates know that a child is in foster care. 

They may learn about a foster child because when that child is enrolled, the school will receive required legal documents for identification. A birth certificate can easily signal that a child is not related to the parents. One school administrator said that common sense should dictate that talking about a student’s personal life is improper unless there is a medical emergency.

Yet sometimes a teacher will tell a foster kid’s classmates about them. Then the bullying begins. I recently sat down with a high school teacher, “Leslie,” who had 17 years of experience. I told her how many foster teens are afraid of being found out at school. Leslie replied, “Most kids are too self-absorbed to care if a fellow student is a foster teen.”  

As the quotes from former foster children show, her observations couldn’t be further from the truth.

I relayed her comments to several former foster kids who shared that hers was not an uncommon attitude. Therein lies a serious part of the problem for foster children. When educated, experienced teachers are so out of touch with the lives of their students, these kids will eventually lose trust in another important authority figure.

We have all heard at least one story of an athlete or successful business person who connected their success with having had a coach or teacher during their childhood, someone who cared enough to work with and support them. But foster children are often deprived of this opportunity by the ignorance of their teachers. 

The sad fact is that 19% of children enter foster care because they were physically or sexually abused by a parent, the ultimate authority figure. Almost one- third of foster kids are physically or sexually abused while in foster care. Now these kids are in school where another authority figure, their teacher, has turned against them by embarrassing them to their classmates and putting the foster kid potentially in harm’s way.

Another factor is that most foster kids are already traumatized by how they were removed from their home. 

Teachers, administrators and foster parents may be harming a child either directly or through indifference.

Somehow the public in general expects these kids to look past all of that hurt and abuse and trust adults who have already shown they are clearly not to be trusted.

Some foster children do find refuge with a teacher. Jenny wrote, “I was bullied several times. That's why I kept close to the teachers.” Yet even if a foster child finds a protective and sympathetic teacher, the child will have to spend some time alone with other students. Former foster kids have reported being attacked in restrooms and out on the playground.

School administrators sometimes instigate abuse and harassment. Alec, a former foster youth, shared this story:

“My senior year, I was transferred to a foster home in Wisconsin. My foster mother took my foster brother and me to the school about a week before school started to meet with the principal. He sat us down and gave us a lecture on how he knew we were foster kids and would be watching us. If we caused problems he would have our asses. We were both in [foster care] because of abusive parents.”

Cathy Clark, a former foster youth who worked for her school district, shared that when teachers didn’t want to deal with a foster care kid, the principal would be summoned and would take the student to their office even when the child had done nothing disruptive in class.

Many schools have established policies against harassment. The San Diego Unified School District’s policy states, “San Diego Unified has adopted a policy that prohibits discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying based on actual or perceived ancestry, age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or association with a person or a group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.”